If you’re going to call me scum, I want you to spit on me.
I reckon the real Valerie Solanas was a spitter. The kind of angry, desperate, urgent person that gets so carried away with what they’re trying to tell you that they sort of forget how to control their mouth. The kind of lonely person who doesn’t talk to other people very often so when she does she’s all up in your personal space, too close, flecks of spittle on your face.
You know when you’re watching a show and the performer is Acting and you can see the spray of saliva from their mouth glittering in the back-light? How it’s gross but exciting because it means both I REALLY CARE ABOUT THIS and also THIS IS REAL?
That spittiness is missing from Femme Fatale. It’s not entirely the production’s fault – it’s a small, warm room in the Omnibus Theatre and the audience are there for a good time – but I found myself wishing for it, a wet sign of anger and immediacy.
The real Valerie Solanas self-published the SCUM Manifesto as a pamphlet in 1967, a call to join her Society for Cutting Up Men. You can see her problem right there, really. Her approach was divisive, visceral: don’t just get equal, don’t just get rid, actually slice men apart, chop them into tiny pieces and throw their entrails in the gutter. It’s easy to alienate people with a demand for violent, irrevocable action. She’s never really been taken up by subsequent feminist movements and from accounts of her life, it seems likely that she was her own worst enemy. The language of the manifesto is essentialist – she talks about ‘females’ and ‘males’ – in a way that feels uncomfortable now.
But I still feel a little thrill of excitement at the first line of the manifesto:
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of this society being at all relevant to women, there remains to the civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.
That drolly parodic tone coupled with completely uncompromising demands – ‘oh well, another rainy day, nothing for it but to literally destroy the world as we know it’ – still wants to be listened to, I think. It still feels deeply contemporary to insist on acknowledging the self-reinforcing relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. And if full automation could lead to liberation, there’s something beautiful in that utopian optimism for the future.
Femme Fatale is set in a room in the Chelsea Hotel, New York, in 1967. It imagines a meeting between Solanas and the ice-cool singer and supermodel Nico. Both women were cast in Andy Warhol’s movie, I, A Man, and while they wait for him to call them on set, they get into an argument.
Polly Wiseman’s script is name-droppy, inevitably – Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, John Cale, Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison – but I went through a late-sixties, early-seventies phase when I was first getting into music, so to be honest I found it pretty fun. Wiseman also plays Nico with a spot-on imitation of her languid, Teutonic drawl and its unmistakeable sibilant Ss and rounded Os. ‘It iss not sso important,’ she sighs.
But as the play goes on, Nico thaws, gradually revealing the emotional impact of her traumatic childhood in wartime Berlin. I didn’t really want it to do that. I get the temptation to make two famously unlikeable women sympathetic, to show the humanity behind the lights and cameras, but Femme Fatale made them almost cuddly.
The central storyline of the play, the hotel-room conversation, is framed by segments in which Solanas (played by Sophie Olivia) chats to the audience like a cabaret-style MC. Olivia’s Solanas is basically a downtown New York cockney. She enters high-fiving the audience – ‘hey, thanks for coming, isn’t this exciting?’ – and invites us into S.C.U.M. Bit of banter with a man in the front row, bit of a wink at a woman on the aisle, but never the furious, confrontational dyke that Femme Fatale tells, rather than shows, us she is. It transmutes visionary optimism into cheerful chirpiness.
Still, the play sets up a strong dichotomy between their characters. Solanas is impatient for a future in which the whores, dykes and criminals of the world come together to tear down the patriarchal systems that oppress them. She’s keen to get Nico onboard, because Nico can persuade Warhol to stage her new play and spread her message. But Nico is pessimistic, wary of grand gesture, of militantism. She just wants the space to make her own music, to raise her son. It’s an implicitly feminist position – her male producer ruined her solo album by inserting flutes without consulting her – but Nico’s not really one for solidarity and sisterhood. Wiseman gives her some great, sharp lines – ‘you know if you lose your shit, you lose all of your power?’ – that make the see-sawing argument between the two women very watchable.
The production is simple – designed by Sally Hardcastle, the hotel room is represented by three big boxes of Brillo soap pads that serve as the bed, against a white backdrop. (I’ve just realised that the Brillo boxes were a reference to a piece of Pop Art by Warhol; I spent most of the play wondering if they were tenuously saying something about Nico’s cleanness vs Solanas’s dirtiness, but anyway I thought they looked nice and chunky.)
Director and video designer Nathan Evans projects images of contemporary women’s rights marches on to the backdrop at the end. The implication that the issues raised in the play are still live is fair enough, but it’s slightly under-nuanced. In her cabaret turns, Solanas clarifies that SCUM in Femme Fatale is more about the power held by cis het white men than all ‘males,’ but the updated terminology felt more conciliatory than incisively contemporary.
Valerie Solanas is most famous for attempting to murder a more famous man. On 3rd June 1968, she went to The Factory and shot Andy Warhol at close range, elevating her to notoriety. It’s a minor point, but in Femme Fatale the gunshot sound effect was underplayed, when I wanted a point-blank bang to make me jump, to wake me up in the warm room. Spit in my face: THIS IS REAL.
Femme Fatale is on at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham till 27th October. More info here.